By Robert N. Jenkins
The ghosts of Gettysburg are the sad, soulful memories of the more than 34,500 young Americans killed or wounded by other young Americans on the first three hot - and horrific - days of July 1863. Anything beyond a casual reading about that bloody to and fro causes you to mourn the victims, almost 150 years later.
More than 1.8-million people come each year to Gettysburg National Military Park, a swath of rolling Pennsylvania countryside, to roam the land in order to try to comprehend what happened n those three days. A visitors center opened in 1974, but it could accommodate less than a fourth of the tourists. Its technology in displaying even a fraction of the estimated million artifacts –diaries in fading ink, soldiers' Bibles, rifles, cannon – soon was out of date. Worse, though, was the realization that an adjacent parking lot and a building housing a deteriorating, 1880s, wrap-around painting of a famed battle had been built atop the land where an estimated 971 soldiers had been killed.
After years of planning and construction, a $103-million museum and visitors center replaced it in 2008, on land that saw no major combat. The financing came from an unusual blend of public and private funds, with nearly three-quarters of it from individual and corporate donations. "We have absorbed all the operating costs of the visitors center and museum," said Dru Anne Neil, director of communications and marketing for the nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation, "freeing the Park Service to spend its dollars to interpret this place to the visitors."
That interpretation includes more than an hour of newly commissioned films that explain not just the battle but also the history of America, from the Revolution to contemporary times. A 22-minute film has a few scenes with costumed actors, but largely utilizes the fade-in/pan-across techniques that Ken Burns made so familiar in his acclaimed PBS series The Civil War.
In the introduction to this movie, narrator Morgan Freeman gently intones, "Freedom, like power, will always be contested."
Deftly, his closing lines repeat one of the phrases from President Lincoln's immortal speech, delivered only a few hundred yards from where the viewers now sit: "Now, we are met on a great battlefield of this war…." Beyond twin theaters showing this film are 12 galleries, each using a phrase from the Gettysburg Address as its theme.
A sign tells those entering the galleries:
The Civil War was fought over three issues - survival of the Union, the fate of slavery and . . . what it means to be an American.The war resolved the first two issues. The nation struggles with the third to this day.
Strokes of lightning
The museum makes strong use of writings from the period. Some of these are audio narrations; most are presented in signage at various displays. Nowhere is this more effective than at the entrance to the galleries: The South is determined to . . .make all who oppose her smell Southern (gun)powder and taste Southern steel.—Jefferson Davis, in his inaugural speech upon becoming president of the Confederate States of America, in February 1861.
“Every name (of a dead soldier) is a lightning stroke to some heart and it breaks like thunder over some home, and it falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone.”—The Gettysburg Compiler newspaper, four days after the battle.
The most distinctive gallery features actor Sam Waterston, the museum's voice of Lincoln, reading the Gettysburg Address in a raspy tenor. Lincoln didn't give that brief speech until more than four months after the two armies had withdrawn. The Confederate wagon train carrying the wounded had stretched an estimated 17 miles. But left behind in the fields, orchards, rocky clefts and forested hillsides were 7,708 dead or dying soldiers, and thousands of dead horses and mules. Another memorable gallery describes this unimaginable aftermath thrust upon the 2,400 residents of what was then a simple crossroads town.
See their faces
The display of artifacts is imaginative and helps the visitor understand facets of war or a soldier's life:
- Gen. Robert E. Lee's camp cot, writing desk and small stove show how simply the Confederate commander lived.
- A small wooden slat bears the scrawled name of a dead Union soldier. It had been tied with a leather thong to his wrist, identifying him for burial. Around it are displayed the actual letters written to his father by the soldier's colleagues.
-Wall displays hold rank upon rank of rifles from among the 28,000 recovered on the battlefield. About 23,000 of them were still loaded…not fired by their wounded or frightened owners.
One wall is covered with photographs of 1,000 soldiers, 500 from each side. Each of the men shown was killed, wounded or captured. They represent all who fought here. It took the park's supervising historian and several interns about two years to fashion this particular display. Was that too much effort just to create an effect?
"If people come here and only tour this building and leave (the grounds)," says the Gettysburg Foundation's Neil, "we have failed miserably. We want people to get out and walk the battlefields, experience it and leave wanting to learn more, to come back.This place is so special in our history."'
If you go
The Museum and Visitor Center is open daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Entrance to the museum is free. There is a nominal fee for timed tickets to the 22-minute A New Birth of Freedom. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm.
Freelance writer Robert N. Jenkins is the former travel editor of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. His web site is bobjenkinswrites.com
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